Never before has schools policy been so important; the election debate could very well be sealed if the Tories get in and manage to dismantle the state system.
Never before has education been such a fiercely contested issue in a general election. In Labour’s manifesto, education tops the list of social policy ahead of health, crime, immigration and the environment. The Liberal Democrats pledge a fair chance for every child on the cover of their manifesto and the Conservatives promise to improve schools on page 1 of theirs.
Constraints on public spending have certainly put education in the spotlight, but it is also the case that there are a number of compelling issues about curriculum; accountability (Ofsted and league tables); how children are assessed; pedagogy (the way in which you teach); and discipline have driven the debate on education.
The Tories have attempted to answer many of these questions by promoting free schools and a fragmented education system as the solution.
A few months ago, the Conservatives looked like they were leading the debate on education, with shadow education secretary Michael Gove being hailed an education visionary for his plans for wholesale structural reform of the state system. But under scrutiny, the Tories’ great intellectual has been tripped up by niggling questions of practicality.
As early as March, voters were getting cold feet about Gove’s proposals for a fragmented schools system and the party has continued to be mired in questions about how it will fund its pupil premium (giving schools extra cash for taking poorer pupils) and free schools (schools set up by parents or other providers using public money), with the Institute for Fiscal Studies singling out the Tories for their lack of transparency.
In a sternly worded paper, it declared this “unfortunate”, suggesting that the Tories would be cutting funding for ordinary state run schools to set up free with surplus places to drive competition. Free schools, it turned out, weren’t free. You need to rob Peter to pay Paul.
More recently, Gove had to admit that although free schools would not be owned by profit making companies, Tories would allow schools to be subcontracted to profiteers, letting rip a free market in education. Far from empowering local parents, power will be taken out of the hands of communities.
Should anything go wrong, parents who have subcontracted their school to an international chain company may find themselves having to fly across the world to confront the contractor. Even baffled Swedish commentators have flown over here to try and investigate why the Tories are so in awe of their flawed system, concluding that the Tories
“Ignore most of the warnings from the Swedish debate.”
Left Foot Forward has also covered how the Tories have come unstuck on other lesser-reported questions, such as their policy on barring graduates with less than a 2:2 degree, their confused plans on how to measure the success of schools and plans to end the right of appeal in school exclusions, which Gove has now acknowledged could mean he faces a legal challenge on human rights grounds.
The devil, Gove has discovered, is in the detail. Now people in his own party have attacked his plans, begging the question ‘is Gove a visionary or a dreamer?’
The Tories, of course, should be praised for promoting education as one of the central planks of the party’s policy and Gove’s admission that his party did not fund education properly in the past took balls (in both senses); yet they still haven’t been able to commit to maintaining the schools budget – indeed the Tories would make cuts to education.
The IFS says Tory plans to cut £6billion this year would see the schools and children’s budget slashed by £1.7billion. By Ed Balls’s projections, Tory education cuts in England would mean the loss of 38, 000 jobs in schools.
It is these kind of projections that have always turned those in education away from the Tories, and yet it is no longer the case that Labour is the only party for teachers. To some extent, Nick Clegg was right when he said:
“Teachers are turning to the Liberal Democrats because only we offer the right combination of freedom and resources to make Britain’s schools the best in the world.”
It would certainly seem as if the Lib Dems’ message of “education is everything” has been winning hearts and minds. David Laws, of all the three candidates, polls well with students, teachers and head teachers in live debates. He has been praised for pledging “more cash, even in these difficult times” and for his understanding of the pressures on teachers, as well as his measured approach to switching the emphasis from pushing children on C-D borderline (in order to enhance school’s exams results) to all children’s improvement from top to bottom.
His concern at schools becoming ‘exam factories’ and his pledge to move towards internal assessment with external moderation, as well as cutting back the power of Ofsted, may curry favour with teachers. In contrast to the Tories, the Lib Dems have also won praise from the IFS for spelling out how it would pay for its pupil premium.
Neither Balls nor Gove has given any details on student tuition fees, but the Liberal Democrats have a clear policy of abolishing the fees. What Laws has been less clear on is where the money would come from to fund this £1.8 billion pledge.
“I’m a big fan of David Laws.”
Defence of record
Labour may not have fought the most glamorous or the most imaginative campaign, and yet its pledge not to cut the schools budget, but to increase it by more than inflation each year reminds the public that it is still the party of “education, education, education”.
Whether or not you think Labour have done enough to improve standards in education, it is difficult to deny that this 1997 pledge propelled schools into the nation’s consciousness and drove them to the top of the political agenda. Both the Tories and the Lib Dems have had to concede that school standards have improved under Labour, and it’s difficult to imagine any prospective prime minister not saying education was a top priority.
Ed Balls has been fighting with compelling evidence of improvements: more new school buildings since the Victorian era, with 4, 000 new buildings; two-thirds of all GCSE students achieving at least a grade C, for the first time; funding per pupil more than doubled; the best generation of best paid teachers we’ve ever had.
However, simply defending the record and saying that they have a “moral imperative” to do more has been a difficult sell for Balls, which is why Labour has had to try and translate some of the most seductive elements of the Tories’ promises to parents.
While the Tories say that parents could be responsible for the day-to-day running of schools,
under Labour, parents would get the chance to vote on the success of the school’s senior leadership team. If they felt they were not doing a good enough job, they could sack them and select another provider from an approved DCSF list. Rather than run schools, they would act as referees.
While Labour’s academy programme has encouraged private companies to have a go at running schools (with mixed results) the party is essentially against any potential to make a profit from children’s education; while a free market Tory approach would introduce a climate of competition and create isolation, Labour has been encouraging schools to work together as federations. There is compelling evidence to suggest that school chains raise standards.
Over the last three decades we’ve veered back and forth, from leaving decisions to teachers to giving responsibility to local authorities, to top-down government action, parent power and state independent schools. But the debate could very well be sealed in this election if the Tories get in and manage to dismantle the state system.Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.